‘We need to stop producing pollution and not go back to the dark ages’

28 Nov 2018

Dr Marion McAfee is a lecturer in mechatronic engineering at IT Sligo and a researcher at the SFI advanced manufacturing research centre, I-Form. Image: James Connolly

I-Form’s Dr Marion McAfee had no intention of getting into research, but now she is helping to produce 3D-printed implants that change people’s lives.

After completing her mechanical and manufacturing engineering degree at Queen’s University Belfast, Dr Marion McAfee went on to complete her PhD, which looked at enhancing the control of a plastic production process so that the amount of energy and waste associated with the process could be reduced.

Since then, she has spent her career working on projects related to increasing the intelligence in manufacturing processes for sustainability. She is now a lecturer in mechatronic engineering at IT Sligo and a researcher at the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) advanced manufacturing research centre, I-Form.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Ironically, I never had any interest in being a researcher. I always really loved working on practical, ‘real-world’ problems as an engineering undergraduate, and I had no interest in wearing a white coat and working on what I perceived to be very academic matters.

It was only when I was working on my final-year project that I interacted with a lot of engineering PhD researchers and found they were working on really cool and important stuff – things like developing better hip joints and improving the efficiency of power plants, and lots of other areas that are really important to society.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

At the moment, I’m working with I-Form where we’re applying digital technologies – such as 3D printing and data analytics – to the manufacturing process.

I’m working with a medical device company on using metal 3D printing to improve the quality of the devices they produce and also reduce the cost of making them. A very exciting thing about the 3D-printing process is that it makes it really easy to embed sensors in products which we can use in all sorts of ways, including interacting with augmented- and virtual-reality systems.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

It is only with research that we can drive progress. For the survival of the planet, we need to stop producing so much pollution and waste, and not go back to the dark ages and living in caves. We have to learn how to make stuff without so much environmental impact and be able to remanufacture new products out of things that have reached the end of their life.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think manufacturing has a bit of a bad image. People think of boring production lines, but it’s actually such an exciting and important field. I do a lot of work with medical device companies and, for example, the most amazing design for a synthetic heart valve is worthless if it can’t be made for an affordable price.

Most industries are also moving away from mass production to products that are customised to the individual. For example, in the case of medical devices, a patient can be scanned to work out exactly the shape and size of an implant they need, and it can be 3D printed just for them.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

The field of bioplastics is of great interest to me. These are plastics made from natural resources like seaweed or corn starch, and they can biodegrade. At the moment, they aren’t as strong as most synthetic plastics, and manufacturing things out of them can be difficult as they tend to degrade as you heat them. There is huge potential here, though, and I’d like to see more resources put into improving the material properties and the manufacturing processes for them.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.